South Sudan: tackling malnutrition in a population starved by conflict
Their fields have become war zones, and much of the population of Yei in South Sudan cultivates the tiniest plot of land to survive within the city’s perimeter. Terre des hommes is supporting families by developing urban vegetable gardens to tackle child malnutrition. Report.
A 4x4 negotiates its way along the reddish dirt road surrounded by bright green fields bathed by the morning sun. “The Yei region was the breadbasket of South Sudan,” says Ladu Jackson, a Tdh employee. “It was also a trading hub.”
The country's breadbasket has become a war zone, and Yei is a besieged city. The conflict that broke out in 2013 plunged the world's youngest state into a severe food crisis. Six million people, half the country’s population, have been affected. “We were spared at the beginning of the civil war, but the front line moved down here in 2016,” Ladu continues. More than 200,000 people in the region, 15% of them children, now suffer from acute malnutrition or have been affected by food insecurity.
Looting and extortion
The car pulls into a yard belonging to a small house. A worn-looking woman tills the soil on her plot of land. If she had been able to, Sophia* would have left Yei with her 15- and 16-year-old children to join the one million South Sudanese refugees in Uganda. The border is only 57 kilometres away. “But the journey through the bush is too dangerous,” she says.
Government forces have cut off the city, declaring anyone outside the so-called 2.5 km “security perimeter” to be a rebel. Nevertheless, Sophia and her two children are not safe from pillage, rape or terror; warring parties on both sides have committed atrocities against civilians. “Soldiers came at night and beat me in front of my children because I had nothing for them to steal,” she recalls. “At night, we don't turn on the lights to study,” says her son. “You cannot attract attention.”
Most of Yei's 350,000 inhabitants deserted the city, 70% of the 50,000 people who repopulated it after 2016 fled their villages to occupy the city’s empty houses – like the women a few miles away harvesting aubergines in the sweltering midday heat.
We support approximately 4500 families in Yei. The urban vegetable garden project was launched in collaboration with another Swiss NGO, EPER, who have been in the region for several years working with a local partner specialised in agriculture. Ten grams of seed will produce thousands of vegetables. “Urban gardening has the advantage of requiring little space and providing nutrient-rich food that prevents deficiencies”, says a programme assistant from the South Sudanese NGO Muwjo Development Organisation (MDO).
But the city does not have enough land to be self-sufficient and inflation means the food being sold in the markets is unaffordable. “Much of the food in the market is imported from Uganda,” Rachid explains. “Convoys have to drive north of here, via Juba, and that raises the prices.”
It is four o’clock. Sophia's two children come home from school and help her water the vegetable garden and prepare a meal; their second meal of the day. Last year, they only ate one ration a day – still the norm for many in Yei. “When we visit the families, their children are in poor health, we regularly see obvious signs of malnutrition,” says a worried Rachid. Both teenagers look forward to the meal. This evening, it is “garden pea soup.”